The Complete Stories
By Clarice Lispector
704 pp. New Directions. $22.
I had high hopes for this one. But I have to admit I purchased this on style points alone.
It’s true. I certainly do judge a book by its cover (we all do at least a little bit if we’re being honest), and this cover is fascinating.
Go on. Take a good long look at it.
See what I mean? It’s just the author’s face. But what you can’t see, because it’s on the spine, is that these hot pink lines spreading across the front cover emanate out of a sort of orb that sits between the author’s lips. And on the back cover the lines continue, over an image of the author’s hand lightly grasping her chin.
It’s compelling and, if I’m being honest, a bit hot. It puts me in mind of the types of CDs I used to buy when I was 13 or so. I remember going into the store and seeing Kylie Minogue or Celine Dion posed seductively on the album cover — Kylie Minogue significantly more so, as you’d imagine — and, without knowing what either actually sounded like, I’d buy it just because, well, they looked pretty good!
I left one out. Charlotte Church. Voice of an Angel. She was 12, I was 13, and she looked like someone I had a crush on at the time. I bought the album, positively trembling with anticipation, only to get home and put it on to find that it was … opera?
I was taken aback, but she was still attractive, I couldn’t deny that.
But let me get back to Clarice. As in Lispector, not the “Clarice” you hear in Anthony Hopkins’ creepy Hannibal Lecter voice.
What a great name! Clarice Lispector. So it’s a compelling cover and a truly great name. And it helps that she’s quite attractive. Sells more books to be sure. She’s Brazilian, with Eastern European roots, so that makes sense.
So I bought the book. At The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado back in March 2019. Lovely place. And that’s how long this book sat on the shelf for, nearly two years.
But I brought it with me places. You know how it goes. You think you’re going to get through eight books on your two-week vacation but you don’t. And this is 650 pages, so it’s not going to be the first one you pick up on your trip. You want to read a couple of those shorter ones first to feel as though you’re actually making some progress toward your reading challenge.
So this has been with me to a lot of places before, one day, I finally cracked the cover. Except it’s a paperback so it didn’t really crack, per se, but anyway.
Wow! The introduction of this thing! It’s only 13 pages or so, written by Benjamin Moser, who apparently wrote an entire book on Clarice Lispector, but just those 13 or so pages make it clear that she was quite a woman. Her husband was in the foreign service or something, so she was always jetting off to this or that country.
In my mind, I imagine Lispector as a sort of cross between James Bond and Marilyn Monroe. She’s stylish, unquestionably glamorous, quite the looker, and, when she’s not meeting foreign dignitaries, she’s off sipping cappuccinos in Rome or shopping for gloves in Paris.
AND she writes??
Where have you been all my life, Clarice Lispector?
She’s supposed to be a great writer too! The New York Times says that Lispector is a “Sphinx, sorceress, sacred monster” and, for good measure, throws in that she’s “hypnotic,” “glittering,” and “savage.”
Wow wow wow!
Slate’s Book Review says she’s a “genius on the level of Nabokov.” Whaaaaa!!
Publisher’s Weekly says “The Complete Stories is bound to become a kind of bedside Bible.”
Yessss! Convert me, my dear Miss Lispector, I will keep you by my bedside!
So for nearly two years I have semi-idolized Clarice Lispector. I would pull the book off the shelf every once in a while just to look at before putting it back down again, my mouth watering in anticipation of one day reading all of the scandalous, sensational tales Miss Lispector was no doubt eager to tell me.
“Clarice Lispector! Isn’t she just great?” I wanted to say. “Three cheers for world literature and Clarice Lispector!”
And then one day I finally read Clarice Lispector.
So, that’s … it?
I don’t quite get it.
No no no, please! Please speak to me, Miss Lispector! Speak to me!
Hmm, no. I really don’t see what all the hype is about.
“A genius on the level of Nabokov”?
Not unless it’s the type of hypnosis that’s meant to send you to sleep.
Now, to be fair, I did like several of these stories. Several. But there are 85 here, so you’re bound to like something, particularly because these stories seem to span a variety of genres. Which is impressive, to be sure, but also … frustrating, because, put all together in a single collection, they don’t form anything like a rhythm. They’re just … words on a page. Sometimes the words feel like they were arranged there by someone very foreign indeed, as in alien almost, unfamiliar with the rules governing storytelling.
Yes, experimental is a word one could use to describe many of these stories, particularly the 14 in the section “Where Were You At Night” which, again, is a super sexy title, full of longing and intrigue, but the stories themselves were just sort of … well, I’d say weird but the truth is that I understood so little of what I read that I just have to go back to experimental.
My favorite stories almost all came from the first two sections in the book, named, aptly enough, “First Stories” and “Family Ties.” By this I can only gather that I loved the writer Lispector was in her 20s, but as she matured her style quickly diverged from mine.
That’s not to take away from the stories I truly did savor here, like “The Escape” and “Happy Birthday,” but those were far too few and far between. Most of the rest of these stories are just strange episodes that feature chickens.
Really though. Lispector loves her chickens.
So ultimately I was left heartbroken. Lispector is a “sorceress” to be sure, but it wasn’t her stories that cast me under her spell, but her own biography. Had she lived a less interesting life and, dare I say it, been less attractive, would anyone know her name today?
I’m not so sure.
What I can say, though, is that the style most often on display in these stories is clearly not for me. Perhaps I ought to give one of her novels a try. Those, too, feature her likeness on their covers, her eyes gazing out at you, her lips pursed promisingly.
It’s a look of daring, desire. A look of knowing you’ll never be able to resist.
But, depending on your proclivities, my friend, perhaps resistance is your best move.